It’s been 25 years.
A quarter-century ago this fall, the men’s soccer team—coached by Charlie Slagle ’75—made the national semifinals, the first and only Division I Final Four berth in school history, qualifying for an event that was being held, remarkably, in Davidson, at Davidson, on campus on the field at Richardson Stadium. It stands as one of the most improbable accomplishments in the annals of intercollegiate athletics, and is the foundational achievement in the modern history of Davidson sports. Before Stephen Curry ’10, there was Ukrop, and Deegan. Before Bob McKillop, there was Slagle. Before the basketball team of 2008, and before the baseball team of 2017, there was the soccer team of 1992.
It does not feel like it’s been 25 years.
“Not at all,” said Ryan Northington ’96.
“Crazy,” said Alex Deegan ’95.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Andy Haile ’94.
“Feels like yesterday,” said Rob Ukrop ’93.
With Ukrop, a striker who that season was the nation’s leading goal-scorer; with Deegan, a goalkeeper who was one of its best shot-stoppers; and with a collection of smart, fiercely competitive players that included Matt Spear ’93, the current men’s soccer coach, and Andy Schwab ’93, a member of the Board of Trustees, rounding out a roster of future lawyers, surgeons and financiers—yet with no athletic scholarships, not one—those Wildcats beat teams that were nationally ranked to become nationally ranked themselves. They won the Southern Conference tournament by an aggregate score of 17-2. And in the NCAA tournament, they won three games, all of them in heart-stopping, miraculous fashion.
They emerged from the experience with unbreakable friendships, and lessons they have used in forging their careers and raising their children, and memories that remain so vivid they literally come to some of them in their dreams. But back on December 4, 1992, they lined up in their matching black sweat suits and started the walk from Baker Sports Complex up the hill toward the stadium, toward 8,100 fans, almost all of whom were there to cheer for them.
“You could hear the crowd as you got closer,” said Ian O’Brien ’96.
“It felt electric,” said Tommy Suter ’95.
“My heart was racing,” said Rob Malinzak ’94.
“Man,” said Lance Kinerk ’93, his emotion audible over the phone, and over the years. “I do remember. I do …”
“That moment,” Schwab said. “I still get goosebumps.” Earlier this year, he went to the U2 concert near San Francisco, and the band played its song called “One”—the song that played in the headphones on his ears as he made his way to the field for that game. One love, one blood. One life, with each other. Carry each other, carry each other. And there, in Northern California, on the opposite coast, some 3,000 miles away, and more than half a lifetime later, the 46-year-old biotech venture capitalist and father of two was 21 again, back in Davidson, on that day, surrounded by and supported by everything that made that team what it was and that season what it became, bursting with confidence and gratitude, and selflessness and love.
They couldn’t have done it without Ukrop and Deegan. But Ukrop and Deegan couldn’t have done it without them.
Ukrop scored 31 goals his senior season, bringing his career tally to 76, unheard-of statistics in college soccer. But coming out of high school in Richmond, Virginia, scouts had considered him too slow. Deegan could jump high and move fast and had a keen intuition, often snuffing out opponents’ scoring opportunities before they even had a chance to fully develop. When he was in high school in Westport, Connecticut, scouts mostly just saw his height—listed at 5-foot-10, closer in reality to 5-foot-8. They thought he was too short. And those were the stars of the 1992 soccer team.
The rest of the group had barely been recruited, if at all—from Spear, a vocal, tireless leader from his center midfield position, to Craig Omli ‘93, a stalwart on defense alongside classmate Cliff Castelloe ’93, to John Sampers ’94 and Ben Hayes ’94, who flanked Ukrop in the potent offensive attack.
“I was told Spear couldn’t play Division I, I was told Ukrop couldn’t play Division I, and I was told Omli couldn’t play Division III,” Slagle said, listing the team’s three captains.
“By other coaches,” the coach said.
At Davidson, though, more and more every season, they played hard and they played smart. “And they played for each other,” Slagle said.
“No egos,” Omli said.
There were nine seniors that season, and this team-first ethos trickled down to the underclassmen. Overlooked as prospects, they were aware of their weaknesses. But they burned to show that they possessed important traits those scouts had missed. Qualities that couldn’t be tracked or measured or even seen. And they took to focusing not on what they couldn’t do individually but rather on what they might be able to do together, and only together.
“They had learned,” Slagle said, “that you can’t do it alone.”
In September, they beat the University of North Carolina, ranked 10th in the country, 4-3. In October, in Los Angeles, they beat UCLA, led by goalie Brad Friedel, who had started that summer for the national team in the Olympics in Barcelona. He had been scored on twice all season, but Davidson scored on him three times. The 3-1 victory boosted the Wildcats to a No. 9 national ranking.
“On paper, we shouldn’t have been able to compete with a lot of the teams we were playing,” O’Brien said. “But on the field, we couldn’t be stopped.”
“And as the season went on,” said Phelps Sprinkle ’93, “we just had more and more of a feeling of invincibility.”
The reward for their 16-4-3 regular-season record was the program’s first-ever bid to the then-28-team NCAA soccer tournament and a first-round matchup with Mecklenburg County rival UNC Charlotte.
The next day, before practice, the Wildcats gathered on the field around Slagle. He held a printed copy of the tournament brackets. He read the names of all the teams, one by one. And he had some questions.
Any of ’em scare you?
The players all looked at their coach.
Think you can beat any of these teams?
It was time for practice, and time for the tournament. “I remember walking away,” Ukrop said, 25 years later, “thinking, ‘We can win this thing.’”
The ensuing few weeks were a scrap-book blur: the game at UNC Charlotte, which was tied at 1 after 90 minutes and tied at 2 after a pair of overtimes and decided by two penalty kicks Deegan blocked; the game against Coastal Carolina, in Davidson, on a soggy, muddy field, scoreless, more penalty kicks, then sudden-death penalty kicks, five more Deegan saves, three on shots that would have ended the Wildcats’ season, the last one left-hand-tipped, up and onto the cross bar, finally spinning off onto the top of the net, triggering pandemonium on the field; the quarterfinal at North Carolina State, triple-overtime, Ukrop getting his foot on the ball in a mad scrum in front of the goal and drilling in the decider, sending him running toward the Davidson fans spilling out of the stands and onto the field, swerving, finding a patch of grass, falling onto his back, arms outstretched, exhausted and exultant. The headline in the New York Times calling Davidson College’s men’s soccer team “22 Educated Feet.” The headline in the Davidsonian simply saying “Homeward Bound.”
“We stuck together and played as a team,” Suter told a reporter for National Public Radio the day of the national semifinal against the University of San Diego, “and I’ll tell you what: I’ve never seen a team that I’ve played on that could play like we’ve played this year. It’s magic …”
Students painted red and white paw prints on roads around town. They unfurled bedsheets from windows around campus with spray-painted shows of support. They packed into the stadium’s stands and onto the roof of the adjacent Duke dorm and pressed against the windows of the library to watch. The players’ mothers held high posters with letters that spelled G-O D-A-V-I-D-S-O-N.
And less than eight minutes into the game, Spear got the ball at his feet near the middle of the field. The crowd held its breath. “I played it to Sampers,” Spear recalled this summer. “… down the left wing,” said Hayes, picking up the play-by-play narration, “and Sampers drove a pass to the middle …” Which is where Hayes used his head to redirect the ball sharply into the lower right corner of the goal. Hayes now is a dermatologist in Tennessee, a father to two boys and two girls, and still he dreams about this sequence, and the sounds from the stadium that followed. A rush of sudden joy. Of amazement and adoration. The exhilaration of expectation.
They knew, the young men on that team, that they would be winners.
San Diego scored more goals that game. The final score was 3-2.
Five years later, I talked to many members of this team for the first time. It was the summer before my junior year, and I was reporting for a series of stories that would run that fall in the Davidsonian. Looking back, it was too soon, really, to be able to tell—to gauge just how much and in what ways what they had done in 1992 would mean to them in their lives.
This year, though, when I got back in touch, it was different.
Ukrop is married and has two kids and coaches youth soccer teams in Richmond. Deegan, after a professional career of his own, lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is a principal at Juggernaut Capital Partners, an investment firm that manages more than $700 million in assets. Omli is a sales manager for a door equipment company in Winston-Salem and has three children, his oldest two in college, playing soccer. Schwab is a founder and managing partner of 5AM Ventures, with offices in San Francisco and Boston. Kinerk manages the global digital marketing for Davidson-based industrial manufacturer Ingersoll Rand. Sprinkle has three kids and is a vice president for the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro. Castelloe is one-half of Melonbelly, an acoustic band for hire, and owns with his wife a hip boutique in Charlotte called Moxie Mercantile. They have four daughters. Sampers is a financial planner in New Jersey. Hayes has four children and his dermatology practice south of Nashville. Haile is an attorney and a law professor at Elon. O’Brien has three kids and is the director of operations for World Learning, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Suter is a lobbyist in Tallahassee and has three boys, all soccer players. Northington lives outside Philadelphia and is the chief financial officer at SupplyOne, the major national packaging company. Bryce Smith ’94 has two kids and is the founder and CEO of a renewable energy company in Seattle. Jon Olin ’95 started a recruiting and staffing company in Charlotte and recently sold a 65-percent stake, which gave him the time to work on a book he’s writing—about the 1992 soccer team. And Spear, of course, is the coach of the current team. The jersey he wore in the national semifinal is draped over a chair in his office. Hanging on the wall is a picture of him and his team walking into the stadium that day.
It meant so much to them. “It rooted in me the belief that if you set goals,” Deegan said, “and you put your head down …”
“… if you’re part of a group with a common goal,” Haile said, “and if you’re willing to work incredibly hard …”
“…you can accomplish so much more than what you thought,” Malinzak said.
“It made me believe,” Sprinkle said, “that lots of things are possible.”
“It’s why I’m out on the soccer field right now, with my kids,” Suter said when I reached him. “Playing on a team, working toward a goal …”
In 2008, Olin and Deegan had courtside seats in Detroit for the basketball team’s regional final against Kansas, and they turned around and looked up at the Davidson crowd, and they couldn’t help but be transported, back to December 4, 1992. “I said, ‘Dude, do you have chills right now?’” Olin said. During the baseball team’s run last spring, the old soccer players exchanged flurries of emails and text messages.
The ripples of the 1992 Davidson soccer team continue, into the next generation. Schwab is the godfather of Omli’s oldest son, and Omli is the godfather of Schwab’s daughter. The Castelloes vacation with the Sprinkles. The Omlis do, too. And just recently, Olin’s teenage son said he wanted to learn to play the guitar. Olin called Castelloe.
Carry each other.
Can’t do it alone.
“Send him over,” Castelloe said.